Should the Big 4 be broken up?

Michael West writes:

The “Big Four” global accounting firms – PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and Ernst & Young – are the masterminds of multinational tax avoidance, the architects of tax schemes which cost governments and their taxpayers more than $US1 trillion a year.

Although presenting as “the guardians of commerce” they are unregulated and unaccountable; they have infiltrated governments at every level and should be broken up.

This is the view of George Rozvany, Australia’s most published expert on transfer pricing, which is one of the principal ways large corporations pursue cross-border tax avoidance. Rozvany stepped down last year as head of tax in Australia for the world’s biggest insurance company, Allianz. Formerly, he was an insider at Ernst & Young, PwC and Arthur Andersen.

“The Big Four have, under a Rasputin-like cloak of illusion strayed from their original and critical role of verifying the accuracy of financial accounts for all stakeholders, to be “accountants of fortune” merely representing the accounting position for multinationals and developing aggressive international tax avoidance practices,” he told

Rozvany is writing a series of books on corporate tax ethics. “This is not a victimless crime,” he says. “While Western governments have been cutting back their aid to the most underprivileged in society, from the homeless to orphaned children in Africa, multinational companies have been diverting ever larger profits into tax havens”.

“The global community must also recognise the links between aggressive taxation behaviour, money laundering, corruption, organised crime and terrorism, of which the Brussels bombings and 9/11 are chilling reminders. This, unquestionably, is the financial sewer of humanity where the purpose for such money, no matter how malevolent, is simply hidden until used”, Rozvany says.

At the heart of the issue is a conflict of interest. While the Big Four advise governments on tax reform, they make lavish fees advising their multinational clients how to avoid paying tax.

“They are both architect and engineer,” says Rozvany. “They sell the (tax avoidance) schemes to the multinationals; and in the case of the LuxLeaks scandal last year, they arranged the deals in secret with government, to the detriment of all other sovereign nations and their taxpayers”.

In the PanamaPapers scandal earlier this year, Panama City law firm Mossack Fonseca was singled out as the major culprit behind a global tax avoidance scam, says Rozvany, but who signs the financial statements for Mossack’s clients? Who is guarding the guards? “And by the way, if one enters a Mossack Fonseca office, one knows that one is entering an aggressive law firm not one pretending to be something else”.

“From a regulatory viewpoint, it makes perfect sense to split the accounting and tax functions of each of the Big Four to improve financial integrity and to split each of these firms again into two firms to create competition. International commerce will then have eight international audit firms and eight international tax firms from which to choose.”

Don’t think the firms should be split just because they’re big. But the proposal that their tax and accountancy functions should be separated may have merit.

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